Archive for Robert Armstrong

Dead Duck

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2019 by dcairns

Yes — DECOY is bad, cheap, and interesting, possibly in that order.

I’d read descriptions positing it as a kind of sci-fi noir — putting it in a very small club along with KISS ME DEADLY. The fantasy element is very small, however — the plot revolves around a box of stolen loot which, thanks to the genuinely atmospheric opening sequence, does acquire a kind of Pandoraesque aura. But the fantastical element is merely a drug (methylene blue) that can revive victims of the gas chamber. In other words, the film winds up backing into another genre purely because the writers have a faulty idea of realism.

Gas chamber POV is one of several bold directorial touches.

I was chatting with a friend about composers who make their theme tunes fit the movie title, as if there were going to be lyrics. Like, James Bernard’s DRACULA theme goes “DRA-cul-la!” Called upon to score TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, he simply added four notes on the front. John Williams gave us STAR WARS (“Staaaar Wars!”), and though RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK doesn’t have a tune you can easily sing the title to, you can definitely sing ~

Indiana!

Jones Jones Jones

Indiana!

Jones Jones Jones Jones Jones…

Well, DECOY has a sweeping and romantic tune that seems to be inviting us to sing “Methyline Blue.” So I did. Methyline Blue, Dilly Dilly…

The first image after the titles is the filthiest sink I’ve ever seen (and I live in Scotland… in my home). With the director credit supered over it. A self-loathing self-assessment?

Jack Bernhard was married to his star, Jean Gillie (THE GENTLE SEX), and she’s the best thing in this. A strange performance that’s mostly just cool statement of fact, with a few uncomfortable moments of shrill hysteria. Sheldon Leonard plays the detective shadowing her plot like a man in a state of deep depression, while her patsy, the prison doctor (Herbert Rudley), who IS in a state of deep depression, plays it like a Lugosi zombie.

The movie makes herculean efforts to pad itself out to a slender 75 minutes — one can’t help wondering if coming up with a bit more plot might have actually been an easier solution. One character resorts to literally reading from a dictionary, while Gillie and Rudley engage in a seemingly endless duologue that keeps circling back on itself like a rondo.

“Despair enacted on cheap sets” is Errol Morris’s unbeatable (curse him) phrase for the Monogram aesthetic, and it fits this one perfectly. A character is raised from the dead only to instantly perish again, something that also happens in THE INVISIBLE GHOST. A Monogram trademark? A metaphor for their entire line of goods? A series of last gasps — for shagged-out actors, burned-out directors, clapped-out sets. Resurrection into eternal death.

EARTH FORCES LAID TO COSMIC IMPULSE — it IS SF!

Robert Armstrong, of Carl Denham fame, plays the unlucky stiff, and it’s incredible looking at him to think he’d live to 1973, so convincing is his bone-weary performance here, whereas poor Gillie would die prematurely after one more film.

Gloom hangs over this movie in a more prevailing, soul-sapping way than it could in a more prestigious production — maybe because Monogram are so bad at comedy relief, yet they insist on having it. DETOUR does have some laughs, but they’re all horrible. DECOY has only the sour echo of a burlesque house rimshot.

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The Saggy D.A.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 19, 2015 by dcairns

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Let me see… I saw CRIMINAL COURT, an early RKO Robert Wise B-movie (but not produced by Val Lewton — interesting how largely bland that makes it), and quite enjoyed it (Fiona: “I’m loving the plot in this!”) but a day or two later it’s sort of dissipated from my mind. What do I recall?

Tom Conway is a hotshot lawyer, a defence attorney who’s about to run for DA on an integrity ticket (that’s a thing, right?). He’s obtained hidden camera footage of gangster’s brother Steve Brodie delivering bribes, which he runs for guests at a party — he gives great parties: canapes, cocktails and incriminating evidence. But he gets a call from the top mobster (Robert Armstrong — King Kong’s boss) threatening him, so sneaks out while the projector is whirring and visits the guy at his swank nightclub (all gangsters run swank nightclubs). During a scuffle, the gangster draws a gun, Conway slugs him, the gun goes off, and the gangster is killed. Oh, wait, Conway actually slugs him FIRST, then wallops him a second time when the gun is drawn. Right.

Conway returns to his party and nobody has missed him — he has the perfect alibi. But his girlfriend (Martha O’Driscoll) works as a torch singer at the gangster’s club — I know! — and she walks in, picks up the gun, says, “I shot him!” in a loud voice and then “No!” in a quiet voice, and gets herself arrested. NEVER do this. “I shot him,” is something you should definitely not say at a crime scene, unless it’s true. It confuses people.

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What with his integrity and everything, Conway confesses as soon as he realizes his gf is in the frame. But everyone is so used to his courtroom antics — oh yeah, he pulls stunts like drawing a pistol and panicking the court in order to show what happens when people see a gun — that nobody will believe him. He has the perfect alibi, is a known play-actor, and his girlfriend looks unbelievably guilty.

BUT Conway’s secretary has been secretly working for the mob boss, and was secretly present the night of the self-defense/accidental killing, and secretly witnessed it all through a secret hole in the wall. Conway realizes this when she betrays knowledge of the incident she couldn’t otherwise have, forces her to testify, and then has Steven Brodie and his accomplices nabbed when they try to rub her out.

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There, that wasn’t so bad. My senility isn’t as advanced as I feared. Conway is free to marry the girl, and everyone is so impressed by his integrity that he’s now a shoe-in for D.A. Killing that guy and running away won’t hurt his chances at all — if anything, everyone likes him better than they did before.

Hmm, have I got that right?

AirFix

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2013 by dcairns

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THE LOST SQUADRON is another RKO pre-code about stuntmen — again, like LUCKY DEVILS, it stars one of KING KONG’s leading men (Robt Armstrong this time) and has optical effects work by Vernon Walker (also famed for his CITIZEN KANE transitions). One can actually see a plan emerging, with RKO trying to make big pictures based around spectacle rather than expensive stars. Though this one does have Richard Dix, Joel McCrea and Erich Von Stroheim, which is not bad going.

Opening sequence is a WWI dogfight, with an unusual system of superimposed emblems to allow us to tell the Americans from the Germans. It’s distracting and weird, and may have been a last-ditch effort to clarify an incoherent mixture of stock shots (HELL’S ANGELS?) and studio closeups of indistinguishable aviators — but I’m a sucker for the peculiar so I became fond of the device, and longed to see it used elsewhere. A German insignia could have been superimposed whenever Stroheim appeared, for instance.

The three heroes (plus a subdued Hugh Herbert, with nary a “Woo-woo!” upon his lips) survive the Great War and vow never to part, but do — most of them become freight-train-riding hobos, but Robt strikes it rich and then gets his pals jobs as fliers on Stroheim’s latest epic. This happens to star Mary Astor, who threw Dix over for Von, and so the stage is set for jealousy and sabotage. These tough guys survived the War but can they survive Hollywood?

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Walker contributes a nice optical tilt down from the fake neon sign advertising a Von movie, on to real footage of a Hollywood premiere — a very simple version of KANE’s most amazing trick effect, tilting down from a miniature statue of George Coulouris and pull back onto a full-size set in what looks like a single, seamless shot, but isn’t.

The first big chunk of this is pretty slow and flat — George Archainbaud was never a lively director. Herman Mankiewicz contributed some dialogue and this results in the verbal component of the film occasionally sparking to life, but it also makes the characters seem pretty inconsistent (except for Robt, who’s consistently soused to the gills).

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The last third perks up considerably — there’s been a change of cinematographer, and the climax takes place in a moody half-light, with a constant howling wind outside. The least appealing of the protagonists has been dispatched, and though Mary Astor doesn’t get any more screen time, the film otherwise plays to its strengths and gets up a bit of real atmosphere.

As with LUCKY DEVILS, the glimpses of behind-the-scenes action are the main pleasure, more interesting here than the admittedly spectacular (but infrequent) bi-plane crack-ups.